Lt. Col. Jesse Arnstein, USAF, Ret.
Next month we honor the Anniversary of D-Day, and the beginning of the Allies defeating the Nazis. It’s a poignant time for all Americans, as Nazi dreams of expansion included conquering the United States of America and many have European family roots.
It is a particularly powerful day for me personally. My grandmother is a first generation American (she’s in great health and sends me letters every week). Several times she’s told me of her 1938 summer stay in Poland, and frolicking with young cousins there who taught her Polish. Within two years, nearly all of them were murdered in the Holocaust. She cries at the memory of them, and their innocence. I keep a photo of these cousins in my home office to remind me what could have been, but for America.
The American soldier liberated Europe from Nazi hands, and preserves our freedom to this day. I use this occasion to describe serving with these incredible Americans.
Of the several hundred soldiers in our unit, I work directly with 70 soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, and civilians. Some are here for the extra money; some are here for the adventure; some are here for patriotism; some are here because they have no choice. All of them are here to help one another.
Nearly all the men share a single building for billeting. We are fortunate to have our own rooms, about 50 square feet each. We eat, exercise, bathe (well, use the same bathroom), and socialize together. It’s a family, and everyone has an unusual story and background. Below are some examples:
Jason has spent 7 of the last 13 years deployed to Afghanistan. It’s been a rough time for him. As a commander he lost four young soldiers on his last deployment, and he’d rather not be here. He unexpectedly received deployment orders in 2014 with only a five-week notice. But he understands duty and performs admirably.
Phil grew up in a small Wisconsin town. He attended elementary, junior high, and high school in the same building. His graduating class numbered 19 students (including his twin brother).
Sharon is 33 years old and has three children between the ages of 4 and 11. Rick grew up in the South Pacific Islands, living on Bikini Island, the Marshall Islands, American Samoa, and others. His father was an anthropologist who speaks 12 languages. He told me a story of getting kicked off a train in a remote section of China in the middle of the night and the adventures that followed.
Doug is a merchant marine from upstate New York who speaks and acts exactly like Christopher Walken—a bit freaky until you get to know him.
Sergeant Jonathan “Yoni” Hernandez is my Jewish brother from another mother (and another unit). He grew up Catholic but was drawn to Judaism about two years ago and has a passionate fire in his heart. He’s a gunner that sits atop an armored truck transporting cargo across Afghanistan. He has to make split-second decisions about whether to fire upon cars that mimic moving car bombs (VBIEDs). He described two occasions where suspicious vehicles exhibited all the signs of a VBIED, and had the trigger pulled halfway. He refrained from shooting and found out one was a car full of men who were high, while another contained a woman who had just learned to drive and didn’t know how to adhere to the convoy warning signs.
He is in the process of conversion and wants to make aliyah to Israel. He always wears a kippah. On Friday evening he sets a Shabbat table with candles, grape juice, prayer books, and fresh bread. We say prayers and study Torah. His enthusiasm is contagious and heartwarming. Some nights I meet him in his tactical operations center shortly before he goes out on a mission.
SGT Miller received word that his wife filed divorce papers halfway through his nine-month deployment. His commander was kind enough to let him return to the US to challenge the custody hearing for his children. He left with tears in his eyes—some tears because he felt he was letting his battle buddies down, and some tears for his personal turmoil. I don’t think he’ll be coming back to Afghanistan.
Bill is a 63-year-old civilian who volunteered for a year-long assignment. He is Mormon and lives in Utah. He’s my right-hand battle buddy. We’re an unlikely duo, but work great together and have become very close. He extended another six weeks because he didn’t want me to man the Public Affairs Office all on my own. He believes G-d led him to Afghanistan. He’s not sure why, but he’s here for a purpose, here to help someone else. I’ve never seen him lose his temper. He is kind hearted, brings me a newspaper every day, reminds me of meetings, produces outstanding work products, and sees that the office stays tidy (i.e. cleans up my messes). Each day we take a walk together.
Jim, John, Sarah, and Gordy all extended their yearlong tour by several months. They all have spouses, and children. (This, I don’t understand….. and don’t worry Jill, I’m not extending beyond my six months! Way too long to be away from my soul mate). They extend out of unfettered duty to their comrades and the mission.
We come from multifarious backgrounds, and are drawn to Afghanistan for a variety of reasons. But there are few things that unite us. First, no one complains. It’s remarkable! And surprising since we’re all separated from our families and there’s danger nearby. Second, everyone cooperates and often compliments each other. It’s common to overhear comments like, “I’m really impressed with the work you did on this project. You have great insight.” Third, we all have prepared our bodies for deployment with Anthrax shots, anti-malaria pills (which create crazy dreams!), inoculations, and lots of physical fitness. Finally, we all make sacrifices to be here, but understand the call to duty.
Then there are those whose pictures adorn the dining hall walls. There is an empty place setting too. These Camp members are no longer with us. You quickly realize any personal troubles wouldn’t be bothering them if they could be here.
No one wants to be on that wall. And we understand faith and unity and luck will bring us all home.
On this upcoming Memorial Day, and Anniversary of D-Day, I encourage you to enjoy spending time with family and friends at picnics and barbecues, and to also think about veterans, and keep freedom precious in your hearts.
Originally published in the Shavuos 2022 issue of the Jewish-American Warrior.